SO, RUTH Davidson, whose backbenchers are the hardest to handle: yours or David Cameron’s?
At Westminster, there is endless chatter over a potential plot by Tory MPs to unseat their leader, the man they still haven’t forgiven for not winning the general election. At Holyrood, the whispering campaign against the Scottish Conservative leader hasn’t reached those proportions yet, but is still clear and present. She laughs off the question. “I haven’t been asked that before,” she says. “Having been a journalist for ten years I am wise to your tricks and I’m not going to answer that one.”
Much like the Prime Minister in London, who faced criticism last week for the treacherous act of taking a holiday in Ibiza, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has not had much to laugh about of late. Less than two years into the job, the mid-term blues that often affect party leaders are hitting her too. Gay, socially liberal and only 34, the hope was that she would offer a new face for the Scottish party as it sought to emerge from its two-decade post-Thatcher slump. But now critics within the party are grumbling. Whatever change she was supposed to bring hasn’t happened, they complain.
Some of the MSPs who backed the front-runner, Murdo Fraser, for the top job have “never accepted she won”, says another MSP. Then, having been elected on a pledge to draw a “line in the sand” on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, she performed a neat u-turn, using a recent speech to back the principle of greater powers. Supporters of Fraser, who has long backed the “more powers” ticket, haven’t gone away, note insiders. And, having written an article two weeks ago warning Davidson that she must not kowtow to the “big beasts” in the party who oppose more powers at Holyrood, it appears Fraser is keen to show that too.
Meanwhile, Davidson is facing brickbats for what are seen as sub-par performances within the Scottish Parliament, the one place where she gets the chance to make a dent on the public consciousness. On Friday, the whole party hauls itself up to Stirling for its annual conference, with Cameron among the guests. “It might get quite interesting,” notes one party figure.
As Fraser put it in his article, the selling point for Davidson’s candidacy two years ago was to “elect a fresh new leader who would present a modern face to the electorate, and work harder to try and communicate the message”. The doubters now suggest that hasn’t happened. What has she made of the recent noises off? “For me, when I was elected leader of the party I was pretty clear about the fact that things were going to have to change and you didn’t reverse 19 years of stagnation and decline overnight,” she replies. There has been a lot of work beneath the surface, she says, to turn the party back into a professional election-winning machine. As the first national leader of the party (her predecessor Annabel Goldie was merely leader of the MSPs at Holyrood), she notes there has been a “refocusing” away from Holyrood, with other party figures now involved more in policy and organisation.
“I think it is healthy, but I think that perhaps means that people think they are not being involved in some of the changes, or perhaps that they haven’t liked some of the changes,” she says, explaining the grumpiness on her benches.
That disillusion spiked recently when, after Cameron had been forced to bow to pressure from Eurosceptics over an EU referendum, she injudiciously chose to ask Alex Salmond about Europe. He took her to the cleaners. Was that decision wise in retrospect? “It is absolutely right to challenge the First Minister on assumptions that he makes and brash statements that he has no evidence to back up,” she says. “Whether commentators will make an assessment on whether things have worked in the chamber or not worked in the chamber, well they sell newspapers and that’s fine.”
Then there was a report recently that fewer than half of the 15-strong parliamentary group attend the weekly meeting. “That was one meeting because people sent apologies because they had something else to do,” she responds. Has she felt the need to assert her authority over her MSPs in recent days as the backchat has continued? “What happens in the party will stay within the party,” she says. Does all this chatter irritate her? “I knew when I took this job that it wasn’t an easy job, but it is a hugely fulfilling job and it is a job that I love and I am committed to doing, and I get up every morning wanting to get stuck in.”
But the trouble is, according to her critics, there is no sign that under her leadership the party is close to bringing on any new voters, thanks to its still toxic image (although she disputes this, pointing to a 3 per cent increase in the party’s poll ratings). And until that does change, says one figure, “there will be no change in our performance”.
On Fraser’s solution – to scrap the Scottish Conservative name and replace it with something entirely new – she notes curtly: “That’s his view.” Instead, the party should allow grassroots changes to bed in and allow reforms to bear fruit. That includes trying to bring in fresh blood to the party. She has introduced more rigorous selection procedures for candidates which pit MSPs like her up against newcomers (this tougher job application process might help explain some of the current backbench disgruntlement, her allies believe).
The process meant that a third of the Conservative councillors elected in last year’s local government elections were newbies. And it is likely to mean some of her backbenchers will be signing off at the next Scottish election in 2016. Davidson talks impatiently of the need to get new blood in. “We had a hugely successful Conservative Futures conference in Edinburgh six weeks ago; more than 100 people there were under 25. A really impressive bunch of people who want to get stuck in and do something for a reason. And that’s the sort of people we want. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing but you have to want to put your shoulder to the wheel. I want grafters.”
And, it now appears, she also hopes to rid the party’s image of “anti-Scottishness” by embracing the idea of more powers at Holyrood. Famously, she declared during her election campaign that there should be a “line in the sand” on more powers at Holyrood. But she has set up a review, led by Lord Strathclyde, to examine the case, and argues that if politicians are spending money, then they should be accountable to the public for how it is raised.
Hasn’t she, in doing so, only managed to alienate both the Fraser camp, whom she opposed in 2011, and devo-sceptics who back the stance of former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth, who has warned Davidson against seeking further devolution? “There has been a lot of movement in the constitutional debate over the last two years since I stood for election,” she replies, as she seeks to explain her own change. Salmond bears “absolutely no responsibility for the budgets he has, everything is Westminster’s fault. He holds his hand out for more and says it’s not enough,” she argues. That cannot be allowed to carry on.
If people vote No to independence, she adds, “politics continues after that and what you have to have is a stable situation so we don’t have the Nationalists coming back with referendum after referendum five years, ten years, 15 years down the line. We have to make sure that devolution works for the people of Scotland.” Even if that means left-of-centre Scottish governments using their new powers to whack Tory middle-class voters in Scotland with higher taxes? “We’ve seen from the SNP’s Penny for Scotland campaign [when, in 1999, Alex Salmond unsuccessfully called for an extra 1p on income tax], there isn’t any appetite to pay more taxes than they do anywhere else in the UK. So they are going to have to make a pretty big argument for that.”
Davidson believes Scottish politics is too focused on the constitution right now; certainly air time has been negligible for some of her own policy ideas – such as allowing children aged 14 to pursue vocational education, or increasing childcare provision for two-year-olds. “The debates aren’t happening in this place,” she says, referring to the parliament. “It has been really sad to see a Scottish Government which seems paralysed and is refusing to bring forward issues that matter to people in case it upsets the apple cart before the referendum.”
Impatient and combative, Davidson does not give the impression of someone who has thrown in the towel following the events of the past few weeks. To silence the doubters, she will now have to create the same impression of authority before the Conservative faithful in Stirling this coming weekend.
Is she annoyed by the constant introspection that seems to afflict her party? “What annoys me is that people don’t see or acknowledge the fact that, as a party, we have got our tails up at the moment. We have an issue [the independence referendum] that we can really fight for.” She believes there are many people who vote SNP but don’t back independence who can be persuaded to vote Tory. “But we will only do that if we have a really strong policy platform that will make a difference to the lives of the people of Scotland.”
So no more navel gazing? “No more navel gazing and no more sackcloth and ashes, because sometimes we have been, for me, too apologetic. I am proud of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. I joined it for a reason. I believe in Conservatism.” «